Fixing Both Sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border

The vice president's visit is a chance to address critical issues of security and prosperity. 

Vice President Biden and a team of senior U.S. officials travel to Mexico City February 24–25 for a High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED). Why? We trade over a million dollars a minute with Mexico. It is our second-largest export market in the world. Over thirty-five million U.S. and Mexican tourists legally visited one another’s countries last year. Over thirty-four million American citizens are of Mexican heritage.

The criticism that we hear about Mexico too often misses the depth, breadth and strategic importance of the relationship with our southern neighbor and our essential interest in Mexico’s success. Certainly, we must tackle ongoing problems: criminal networks operate on both sides of the border, soaring drug demand in the United States wounds communities with drugs from Mexico and, fueled by drug sales, cartel violence and corruption wounds Mexican communities. Illegal immigration strains systems and worries citizens in both countries.

Strengthening the American partnership with Mexico and building mutual prosperity is the best way to achieve U.S. interests, however. That is what the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue and the Vice President’s visit are about. The shared objectives include building a more efficient and secure border while working together to fight crime and terrorism, enhancing our ability to compete in world trade and grow our economies and collaborating to address the situations which fuel immigrants heading north, now largely from Central America.

From a strategic perspective, America’s two neighbors, Mexico and Canada, already provide us with a defense in depth against terrorism via close cooperation among security services and help provide a continental economic foundation from which to better compete in the world. Strengthening security and justice cooperation with the democracies on our land borders reinforces the geographic advantage we have, even as we enhance border security. We are making progress. There is still a lot to do, but more durable U.S. security will come from investing to build better partnerships with our neighbors, north and south.

The vice president’s visit reminds us that Mexico is critical to our economic success. We have created high-value production chains across the United States, Canada and Mexico that have allowed all three countries to adapt and become more competitive in a world marked by very difficult competition from China. Last year, we traded well over half a trillion dollars in goods and services with Mexico, selling more to them than to any country except Canada. And the quality of our trade means that much of what we import back from Mexico includes a high content of material produced in the United States—more than any other of our trading partners.

Mexico’s proximity and its ability to become a more productive part of North American value chains have opened the door for U.S. companies to continue operating here while competing successfully with China. A number of studies have pointed out that differences in the costs of production and transport between China and Mexico have narrowed or disappeared, making North America more competitive. The High Level Economic Dialogue has worked hard since 2013 to further enhance North America’s competitive advantages by improving border infrastructure, facilitating cross-border commerce and accomplishing other detailed technical work between the two governments.

Mexico’s government is implementing difficult structural reforms aimed at bolstering economic growth—reforms that can deepen our economic partnership and deserve support. For example, the government has embarked on a massive transformation of Mexico’s education system. It is putting emphasis on learning English and sending more Mexicans for university and postgraduate studies in the United States. A new generation of Mexicans with U.S. higher education will help both countries work together more productively and competitively in the future. Thus, education is part of Vice President Biden’s agenda in Mexico City.

So is energy. Mexico’s major energy reforms, which are opening the sector to foreign investment, can combine with the U.S. revolution in energy technology and the abundance of resources in Canada, giving North America a long-term strategic advantage as an energy powerhouse in hydrocarbons and renewables. Getting our governments and our private sectors to collaborate in this multi-year effort is in our strategic interest.

This growing economic partnership with Mexico has another important benefit. A Mexico that creates jobs and prosperity will generate fewer migrants. Recent studies indicate that immigration from Mexico has reversed, with more Mexicans returning to Mexico than coming to the United States. Making our border more open to legitimate commerce, even as we make it more secure, should encourage such trends. The apparent contradiction between rapid trade flows and more border security is disappearing, thanks to technology, better information sharing and growing mutual trust. We are making progress, as the High Level Economic Dialogue meetings will highlight, but building a border for the twenty-first century requires continued work, including more investment in infrastructure, innovative technology and secure transportation routes, over the years ahead.